China on its way to becoming a technological superpower: Can a totalitarian society become a leading scientific nation?

In the early 17th century, one of the most significant revolutions of the human spirit emerged from the long-dark continent of Europe: the development of scientific thought. The technological progress that emerged from it made Europe the knowledge center of the modern age – and thus the undisputed economic and military world power. But it also led to two other significant developments: First, Europeans (and their intellectual children, the U.S.) today enjoy a prosperity that has long surpassed the greatest hopes of earlier generations; second, most people in Europe (exceptions: Russia, Belarus, partly Hungary and Poland) live in an anti-totalitarian and democratic society. Philosophers, historians, and sociologists recognize here a causal connection working in both directions, from the success of scientific thinking to the development of an „open society“, which, as Karl Popper said, aims at releasing „the critical faculties of man“, and vice versa, the open society, which also increasingly promotes free scientific thought. Popper was then also the first to explicitly emphasize this interdependence. The core prerequisite of science is freedom from outside domination, this freedom on the other hand depends on the permanent questioning of the principles of those in power, for which science is the first guarantor. How much every totalitarian autocrat longs for a world without supposedly troublesome experts, without critical minds, without independently thinking scientists. An open society is always a critical society, and a critical society must always be open.

The expansion of our knowledge of the world that took place at an ever-faster rate after 1650, the resulting technologies that continually improved the human condition, and the transformation of European countries into open societies were the harvest that was reaped when the virtues of scientific thinking became firmly established among the scholars of Europe. The most essential of these was methodological doubt and the concomitant abandonment of dogma. Science undermined all-encompassing models of world explanation and totalitarian theories, thereby also challenging the legitimacy of existing spiritual and political leaderships. Newton’s laws did not accidently open the door to the Age of Enlightenment. They also allowed his country to become a leading scientific nation; conversely, Germany lost its leadership as a scientific power it had held form many decades in the 1930s, when its scientists turned their backs on the totalitarian country.

The optimal development of scientific forces and the resulting super-technologies have historically been possible only in open societies, where governments cannot abuse their power for the purpose of preserving itself and thus cannot dictate to people what they should think and speak. But the question arises: Does successful science generally exist only in an open, democratic society that protects human rights? One is inclined to answer this question in the affirmative. Science and engineering require free thinking that is not restricted by external factors, and their most successful representatives are people who do not like to be told what to do. Only open societies offer these prerequisites.

At this point, at the latest, China comes to mind. No one would seriously claim that this country is an open, democratic society. The censorship of expression by the authoritarian regime, the surveillance of people with the help of modern technologies, the persecution of ethnic minorities and the violation of universal human rights make China a totalitarian ruled society by any possible definition. „Xi Jinping is the greatest enemy of the open society,“ says one of the main advocates of Popper and his open society today, investor and philanthropist Georg Soros. In the eyes of many Western observers, China poses a threat to Western democracies today. The reason is that the country is becoming a technological superpower, not only in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning, where it simply had to apply AI algorithms developed in the West and then exploit a natural advantage due to non-existent data protection laws, but also in other fields such as biotechnologies, genetic engineering, quantum technologies and new energy technologies such as nuclear fusion. In all of these areas, China has long been hopelessly behind the West, but meanwhile having caught up.

Now, technological development is not necessarily the same as basic scientific research. The former is about designing new concrete industrial production and processing methods based on technological ideas and inventions as well as fundamental science, the latter is about new aspects and details of our understanding of the world and nature. The results of the former are mostly protected by copyright, while those of the latter are freely and quickly accessible universally. As early as 1938 did the sociologist Robert Merton warn against assessing the value of science not only not in terms of political appropriateness but also not in terms of economic utility.

It is especially in the sciences where China has shown massive inferiority for over 400 years, which seems to confirm the relationship between open societies and successful science. Thus, since the introduction of the Nobel Prizes in 1901, 616 natural scientists have been awarded this highest prize in the sciences to date (215 in physics, 179 in chemistry, 222 in medicine). The record of Chinese scientists is sobering:

  • Just one person who received a scientific Nobel Prize (Tu Youyou, 2015 for medicine) originated from China, was educated and conducted research there, and held Chinese citizenship at the time the Nobel Prize was awarded.
  • Physics Nobel laureates Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee (1957), Daniel C. Tsui (1998), and Charles Kao (2009) were born in what is now the People’s Republic of China but received their educations and later conducted research in the United States and England. When they received the award, they were all citizens of their respective adopted countries.
  • Yuan T. Lee, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was born in what is now Taiwan, but was also educated in the United States and received the prize as an American citizen.

The Fields Medal and the Abel Prize, the two highest honors in mathematics, have not been awarded to a single Chinese mathematician yet. Most of the well-known Chinese mathematicians of the 20th century lived the largest part or all of their mathematical lives in Western countries. Tthe only exceptions were the number theorist Chen Jingrun and his discoverer and teacher Hua Luogeng. The fact that the Chinese nevertheless have great mathematical potential is shown by the fact that they have won the most team competitions at the International Pupil Mathematics Olympiad, which has been held annually since 1959 (the first time only in 1989; since then, almost two-thirds of all team prizes have gone to China).

By comparison, the Soviet Union, also not an open society (nor its successor state Russia), produced ten physics and one chemistry Nobel laureates during its 69-year history, all but one of whom spent nearly their entire lives in the Soviet Union or Russia. In addition, there are six Soviet and three Russian Fields Medal winners in mathematics. Thus, the totalitarian Soviet Union certainly showed some good achievement in the field of science and mathematics, which seems to challenge the thesis of the dependence of scientific excellence on the status of an open society in which it is achieved. But did the Soviet Union fail not least because of the scientific and then technological inferiority of its system to the West?

Furthermore, let us consider a culture that once represented the flowering of science: In the period from 800 to 1,250 AD, Islamic scientists were unrivaled worldwide. But then, beginning in the early 13th century, an intellectual compartmentalization developed within Arab societies. Islamic religious leaders and rulers became increasingly rigorous in their views and hostile to science, thinking became dogmatic, and societies closed themselves off. Reason and intellect had to be subordinated to faith, and important technologies such as the printing machine remained forbidden for religious reasons. As a result, only two Science Nobel Prize winners to date come from the Islamic cultural sphere: Abdus Salam from Pakistan (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1979) and Ahmed Zewail from Egypt (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1999). Both also spent most of their education and scientific careers in the West, however. There has not yet been a Nobel laureate in physics, chemistry or medicine who was educated and conducted research exclusively in Islamic countries. In contrast, there have been six Israeli Nobel Prize winners in chemistry in the last 20 years alone (the Israeli population is about 8 million, the Muslim population more than 1.8 billion)!  Thus, the Soviet and Arab societies seem to also confirm the thesis of the connection between an open society and the quality of its sciences (although somewhat less clearly in the first case).

To explain China’s small contribution to world science so far, we need to take a closer look at China’s past. For the very longest period of its millennia-long history, China was dominated by a vast, strictly hierarchical bureaucracy. Almost all scholars were in the civil service; outside the bureaucracy, there was no intellectual elite to speak of. As long as they remained loyal, civil servants enjoyed the reliable protection of the state and lifelong financial security. Until the 19th century, the social structure and order of the country remained virtually unchanged. The price of this stability was intellectual stagnation. The high degree of state and social order meant that changes, proposals for improvements and new ideas were not much in demand. There were thus hardly any incentives to acquire new knowledge. It hardly ever happened that a civil servant experimented or even questioned existing knowledge. Those who felt intellectual impulses beyond their daily workload tended to try their hand at the highly regarded art of poetry. The fact that Chinese civil servants were hardly ever creative or curious was also due to the strict selection process for those who wanted to become part of this upper social class. In examinations lasting several days, the so-called kējǔ, knowledge of the Four Books and the Five Classics of Confucianism was tested mainly. In order to pass, candidates had to memorize during tough years of study texts over 400,000 characters long. The official caste thus consisted of people who excelled primarily in diligence and conformism, and far less in innovativeness and ingenuity. At the end of the 16th century, Jesuits brought Western mathematics to China. Probably the most influential book of antique Western mathematics, Euclid’s Elements, was translated into Chinese in 1607. It quickly aroused the interest of Chinese mathematicians; as a result, indigenous mathematical development in China almost completely collapsed. From now on, Chinese mathematics approached European mathematics, but the lead of the Europeans was immense and Chinese education did not change that quickly.

In the 19th century, the period of Chinese stability came to a sudden stop caused by the growing influence of Europe, and a 150-year period of suffering began for the Middle Kingdom of China when a comparably small group of English soldiers in the Opium War from 1839 succeeded in making China’s technological and military inferiority compared to Europe unmistakable to foreign and domestic observers alike. This was followed by colonialist humiliation of the country, its conquest by Japan, civil war, and communist reign of terror. It is only in the last 30 years or so that the country has been experiencing a social and economic upswing as well as a technological expansion. However, this is happening at a speed that makes even observers in the West hold their breath. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that China has caught up significantly with the West, especially in terms of technological performance, having developed from a traditional „copy-paste“ country into a global player on a par with the USA and European countries in many areas when it comes to developing future technologies.

In science itself, China has not yet made a major contribution. Nevertheless, the country is considered a future technological superpower. Will Chinese Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals soon follow, showing that even closed societies can produce top achievements in the various fields of science? Or is also China unable to break the historical pattern that the best science is done in open societies? And has technological progress thus become decoupled from scientific progress due to the fact that new scientific insights are made globally public almost instantaneously? So far, it looks more like the first question has to be answered with „no“ and the last two ones with „yes“.

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